How to handle sibling rivalry: A guide for parents

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Author: Canadian Living


How to handle sibling rivalry: A guide for parents

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger
Sibling rivalry: A common occurance
The most common question we get has nothing to do with our work as activists – it has to do with our work as brothers.

When people think siblings, they think rivalry. Then they hear how we co-founded Free The Children when we were young or how we co-authored three books. A few have seen us working together on our development projects. More have seen us sharing the stage for a speech.

All of them instantly want to know how we get along. If you ask us, we'll tell you about the importance of family, our mutual respect and how we never fight. If our Mom is in earshot, she'll tell you a different story.

Growing up

On more than one occasion she has put us in our place by recounting the epic battles we fought as kids. They weren't pretty. We don't envy her stepping into the chaos formed by our headlocks and amateur wrestling moves.

Thankfully we grew out of that. It's been at least a few weeks since we scuffled over who gets the last chicken wing.

Despite our battles, we developed a mutual respect for each other's talents (and not just Marc's strength as a former rugby player). Through recognizing these unique strengths, we've been able to work together.

"As a parent, it's important to be wise in helping children appreciate their own gifts and talents and not compare them to their siblings," says Diane Marshall, clinical director at the Institute for Family Living Toronto. "It's about helping to create an environment where co-operation, not competition is the norm."

Many family therapists say the trick is to ditch praise and embrace encouragement. When you tell a child that everything they do is the best, their sibling may feel left out. They get the sense their talents aren't as good or that you love the other child more.

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Encourage individualism
A better strategy is encouragement. Asking your children why they enjoy drawing or playing sports engages them and nurtures their ambitions. Plus, it doesn't come across as an invitation for competition.

When we were growing up together in the early 1990s, we shared a last name and that's it. Marc was the outgoing jock. He ran for president of his student council and seemed to excel at every sport he picked up. In between weightlifting to metal music, he was captain of his rugby team and ranked nationally in tennis.

Craig was six years younger and lacked athletic ability. As Craig will now say himself, he was a geek. He enjoyed solitary activities like reading sci-fi novels. He even launched a campaign to save the local library. Plus, he loved the outdoors. Scouting was life, along with camping, canoeing and survival training.

Luckily, one of the greatest things our parents did was encourage our individual talents. "Telling them they are hard workers, good thinkers, kind, curious, inventive, good at a sports is always better than (telling them they're) the smartest, the best, the most talented," says Sylvia Rimm, a psychologist and director of Family Achievement Clinic.

Kids will be kids

Of course, some degree of rivalry is natural – and healthy. The world is a competitive place. It's important for children to learn how to deal without using their fists. That makes siblings the natural tool for teaching conflict-resolution.

After years of Marc's taunts and Craig's annoyances, we worked through our conflicts and realized we could work with each other's strengths.

Craig's love of sci-fi novels has translated into him coming up with the big ideas. His passion for the outdoors means spending most of his time on volunteer project sites in developing countries. Marc, always someone who enjoyed mapping out rugby plays, now uses his strengths to analyze numbers and strategize how to make ideas happen.

We're still very different. And sure, there are days when we get on each others' nerves. But because we've learned to embrace our differences, we couldn't imagine working with anyone but each other. That’s what has made us strong.

Tips for parents
1. Everyone believes their children are little miracles. But try to choose encouragement over praise. Rather than telling your children that they are the best at something, talk to them about why they enjoy doing it. This way you can support all of your children in their individual strengths without encouraging sibling rivalry.

2. Try to stay out of your children's conflicts. Unless they resort to violence, try to let them sort it out for themselves. This helps them learn conflict-resolution, sharing and how not to use their fists.

3. Try to maintain a co-operative household rather than a competitive household. Marshall suggests when a new baby is on the way, refer to it as the family's baby so that the older sibling doesn't view the new baby competition. Then think of ways to include your first-born in the raising the baby so they don't feel left out.

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How to handle sibling rivalry: A guide for parents